2009 has been an epic dining year, and I have the additional pounds on the scale to prove it. As much as I try to balance decadent meals out with lentil soups and raw kale salads (that I actually love, I do!), the food I've enjoyed this year has emerged the victor, but starting the year off in Asia, and with Europe and a few trips to San Francisco in the mix, the damage was inevitable - and pretty worth it.
I've been a lucky girl to have had so many pleasurable bites that I can't even recount them all, but the meals in which the stars and the moon and the planets aligned to create an all-around amazing dining experience are the ones that I will remember for years to come. Whether they've been savored at white tablecloth establishments or standing in a doorway, with friends, family, or strangers, these outings share the common thread of having delicious food with great company in a lovely setting. In no particular order, my favorite dining experiences of the year...
Spring - Paris
I know it defies logic to go to a restaurant by an American chef in Paris for some, but after reading so many solid reviews and hearing about his weekend lobster roll and duck fat fries fry-ups, it became a spot I was willing to fend off traditionalists to try. And having scored a few seats in the dining room of 16, it just seemed like fate. We trekked up to the restaurant from the Poissoniere Metro stop with the rays of the setting sun creating a path to Spring's front window as if it were lighting the way to Mecca. Once seated, we were given a generous block of butter flecked with dark specks. As soon as we tasted the rich spread, further investigation was necessary and the chef revealed that it was in fact Bordier beurre aux algues which is more than he pays for his foie gras.
More diners filled the few tables while the kitchen staff calmly prepped just a glance away, and as the day turned into night, we were treated to potato dumplings with langoustine, chard, radish, in a bouillabaisse scented with cilantro, Thai basil, and kaffir lime. The dumplings were perfectly yielding and not at all gummy sitting alongside chunks of tender langoustine, but the star of the dish was the broth. Its flavors were rich and clean and then we realized there was something familiar about it -- like the phở of our youth that our dads would take us for in Oakland's Chinatown, only much more refined and no oil slick in sight. We were also given a suprême de pintade(guinea fowl)on carrot-ginger purée with fresh almonds and arugula. It was our first experience with fresh almonds (though not our last on this trip) with a round flavor that went well with all the other components of the dish. One of our desserts was an olive oil ganache with Lucques olives (that are now, hands down, my favorite olives ever) and crunchy croccante pieces. I could have licked the plate clean of that ganache, but, being in Paris, I thought maybe I should employ some self-control.
The food was a fantastic start to the trip, but the company and setting made it all the more memorable. My sister, Katherine, and cousin, Liberty, joined me in this jaunt around Western Europe and they always bring a good time, without fail. Their plane had landed that morning and I had arrived two days earlier and hadn't felt the need to spoil myself with sit-down meals, so this was also my first Parisian meal. We were giddy with anticipation of the sights, sounds, and eats we'd encounter the next two weeks, and also completely content in these few hours, enjoying wine, butter, and the company of a few other American couples at our table. There was one pair from Chicago with a daughter actually attending the same high school that Chef Daniel Rose graduated from and also sharing mutual acquaintances with the chef, and they were a delight to share our well-worn communal table with. Talking about food and culture and travel with other food enthusiasts over deceptively simple dishes on a Parisian summer's night -- how could I not fall in love with this meal?
Le Chateaubriand - Paris
Another hard-to-book table that we miraculously scored in Paris was at Le Chateaubriand. We were famished from running around the City of Lights all day, but this meal was an opportunity that we weren't about to pass up. They switched out our server for an English-speaking one that was handsome, effortlessly charming, and had a way of speaking about the dishes that made us hang on every word. From my understanding, he was also a chef, but why he wasn't in the kitchen, I don't know -- too many cooks stirring the pot? Like Spring and many other restaurants in Paris, they offered a prix fixe menu, and it started with salted raw cod with fresh almonds, cucumber, and mint. The fish was a most appropriate start to the meal, as fresh as any I've ever had and paired with elements that only enhanced the flavor of the fish. It was completely refreshing, unlike anything you'd normally associate with French cuisine, but of course, this is Le Chateaubriand where traditional fare is taken apart and put back together in a way that you may not even recognize, but with eye-opening results.
The cod was followed by seared tuna with white lardo, pomme de terre, gingered onions, and dill and then rare veal with golden beets, red beet puree, turnips, purple basil, and spring onions. After our Spring and Le Chateaubriand meals, the unassuming spring onion, unadulterated save for a sprinkle sea salt and oil, became our vegetal obsession.
The atmosphere was distinctly French, with the vast majority of diners speaking the native tongue, but the cuisine was anything but. Combined with the most gracious of servers, it became the Parisian dining experience at which the bar is now set.
Comerç 24 - Barcelona
I realize this is another European meal, and maybe it has to do with the relaxation of being on vacation, seizing the opportunity to indulge in a city's best food, and the feeling of not having a care in the immediate future, but I assure you, we had bites that have no business being in this post, and other great meals will end up being excluded too. Not having the foresight to attempt a reservation at elBulli as soon as it was possible, we decided on a worthy substitute - Comerç 24 from Carles Abellan, formerly of elBulli.
We showed up a day early for our reservation unknowingly, but they were able to seat us in direct view of the kitchen anyway. It started with a tasting of olive oils, each more intense than the previous, followed by an eight course meal that was really more like twenty. We had monkfish with chinese garlic, sesame, and seaweed, the marinated sardines with wasabi root, toasted breadcrumbs and pistachios, spherical black truffle, parmesan, and quail egg in consomme, and the kinder egg (poached chicken egg with truffle and mashed potato) - all of which were outstanding.
The sirloin with strawberries, cherries, and sheep's milk cheese was fantastic, but the best dish of the night for me may have been the duck rice with foie gras ice cream and crushed, toasted corn. The rice, incredibly infused with the flavor of duck with a not-quite-risotto mouthfeel, combined with the rich foie gras cream to create a salty and smooth bite, and the toasted corn provided another welcome dimension to the dish. Olive oil continued to be a showstopper for dessert as chocolate ganache floated in a shallow pool of it alongside bread then dusted with sea salt.
With prime view of the kitchen at work, it felt like we were in dinner theater. Everyone was focused on the task at hand, furiously working, and completely in sync with each other, while we added all the commentary in the balcony. The dining room wasn't the warmest of environments, but nearly every dish was a gastronomical delight.
Fu Hang Dou Jiang Dian - Taipei
I frequently dream of Chinese breakfast fare, but rarely allow myself the have it. On the rare occasions that I throw caution to the wind, stateside (specifically in the greater Los Angeles area) Yi-Mei in Monterey Park is where it's at for Chinese crullers, egg and green onion omelettes wrapped in tortilla-like skins, and sliced beef with preserved vegetable filled shao bing (Cousin Alb even had me bring these when I visited New York last. How many? "Many."), but the first place my siblings and I go to eat after touching down on Taiwanese soil is Fu Hang Dou Jiang Dian (Fu Hang Soy Milk Shop). Hidden on the second floor of a dingy building that doesn't appear to have been renovated since World War II(except maybe for the addition of an elevator), this traditional Chinese breakfast spot is filled with students as well as long-time patrons itching to get their fix of naan-like shao bing.
Taipei-bound flights from the West Coast nearly always arrive at the crack of dawn so by the time we arrive within the city limits, our stomachs are screaming to be sated, and our dad is always willing to accompany us for breakfast. We grew up eating these flaky, baked, rectangular breads, filled with either sliced, marinated flank steak and cilantro, or the long doughnuts, but this place is one of the few shops that still make their bread the traditional way and you can watch the entire process perched on a luxurious plastic stool, elbows gingerly avoiding any sticky spots still remaining on the yellowing table. What makes their method so interesting is that they create an oven from an oil drum, much like an Indian tandoor, and reach in the barrel to stick wet pieces of sugar-sprinkled dough on the walls to bake. The dough crisps up on the exterior with a slight sweetness to the crust and has a tender, pillowy, green onion-flecked interior. Even without the convenience of being street-level like most other Chinese breakfast joints, motorists literally wheeling up to the storefront for their eats and revving off, this place has survived for decades. And they've not merely survived -- long lines still form in the morning hours.
My sisters got to Taipei a couple days before I did, so they had already had their customary Fu Hang Dou Jiang Dian visit before I arrived. It was just me and my dad on this trip, which reminded me of mornings growing up in the Bay Area when I would be the only other person awake early enough to keep him company on shopping trips to Oakland's Chinatown for our family's restaurant.
These days, our parents reside in Taipei with long visits back to the Bay Area every now and again. Quality time spent one-on-one with my dad is a rare event, but splitting a steaming bowl of savory soy milk, slightly curdled from vinegar, well-done doughnut bits bobbing on the surface among globules of orange tinged chili oil and of course the Chinese crullers embraced by their thick, signature shao bing, I almost thought I was fourteen again.
Borough Market - London
Doing the necessary dining research for London, it became clear that we would have to pay a visit to Borough Market for its food stalls. I love California farmers' markets more for its bounty of fresh produce than the omelettes, tamales, and vegan Korean banchan stalls, but with this marketplace just past the south bank of the Thames, its food offerings were not to be missed. It started off innocently enough with raclette from Kappacasein - oozy raclette cheese scraped over boiled potatoes, baby gherkins, and onions. I specifically sought this plate out after only learning about it from my Borough Market investigation, and with the crowd around the stall as well as the whiff of cheese I picked up, it wasn't too difficult to find. It looked like a mess on styrofoam, but the melted cheese and potatoes with the salty addition of gherkins created a snack we had to force ourselves to put down in order to save room for everything else the market had to offer. I picked up a twice-baked banana cake from Flour Power City Bakery before we made our way inside to navigate the maze of even more stalls.
The marketplace was brimming with patrons when we arrived as it was just about lunch hour and if I were to ever live and work in London, I'd want this adjacent to my workplace for lunch too. The options are countless and incredibly reasonable to boot. We picked up five sandwiches among the three of us - salt beef from De Gustibus (similar to what we know as corned beef in the states), a pork sausage with caramelized onions, a pork belly, and two others that I can't even remember anymore. They were all so affordable, so why not try them all?? We posted outside Monmouth Coffee which was another must-try and realized it was right around the corner from Neal's Yard Dairy. Taking a gander at the cheese selection was a given, but seeing that they made fresh Greek style yogurt -- I was as good as sold. It was thick, tangy, and made me wish I had a cow to milk every morning so I might be able to produce something even half as good.
So there we were on the corner with the spoils of our first round of the market, all of us juggling a sandwich or two in one hand and a container of yogurt or cup of coffee in the other, directly across from well-dressed businessmen drinking their pints outside of the pub. The bubbling, wide iron woks of Thai curry were intoxicating, but we were too full to order a bowl. Liberty would have to try it the next day and she proclaimed it perhaps the best she had ever had.
Even without the curry we looked like crazy gluttons, but, in that moment, the crisp London surrounding us, there was no where else I would have rather been.
Momofuku Ko - New York
I paid a visit to dear friends in New York City at the end of April and as soon as I booked the flight, I knew I would be up by 7am every morning starting a week before my trip so as to secure a reservation for David Chang's third Momofuku outpost. Diners sit at the L-shaped bar directly in front of the chefs much like at a sushi bar and watch them do their magic. Online reservations are the only way to ensure a seat and it's a race to click on the green check marks as soon as 10am Eastern time hits as they turn into red Xs within seconds. The first couple of days were a little shaky and the reservations eluded me, but at my third attempt, the gods were on my side and I had scored a late reservation for two.
It was a given that my cousin Albert would join me for dinner at Ko as a fellow food lover (who are we kidding?? - it's in our blood!) and New York resident. The meal was strong from start to finish with a melt-in-your-mouth biscuit with black pepper butter for an amuse bouche and funnel cake for dessert, with the signature frozen foie gras shaved over lychee as well as the soft poached egg with caviar filling out the menu.
The chefs prepare all the dishes before your eyes with a quiet calm that makes you nervous just to be sitting in front of them. They aren't the most engaging bunch, but neither are sushi chefs so maybe it's excusable. They're there to excite our taste buds and on this occasion, the food was flawless.
Being only 3 months my senior, Albert and I have literally grown up together. From third grade until high school, we were in all the same classes, then in college we not only shared classes, but became roommates as well. Six years later, his departure for law school in New York in the Summer of 2008 was surreal and I experienced an unsettling feeling that things would never be the same. It hasn't been a negative change -- we are, after all, adults and can't hang on to our security blankets forever, but now, it's always a relief to see him, and it was particularly special to share this highly anticipated meal at Ko, just he and I.
to be continued...